The volume speaks to three audiences: Those currently suffering for their faith in Christ; mission leaders who need to equip workers for ministry in risky contexts; and comfortable Christians who either ignore what their brothers and sisters are going through around the world, or naively suppose that “it can’t happen here.” Perhaps recent events in the United States have made evangelical believers aware of a growing cultural and even official hostility towards both the gospel and those who seek to follow Christ. I can think of no better resource for them than this incredibly rich volume.
Sixty-eight writers from twenty-two nations contributed sixty-nine brief chapters on the current state of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom in the world, biblical studies on suffering, “reflections from history and case studies,” including two on the Middle East, three on Russia and the Soviet Union and on India, two each on China, Rwanda, and several others. (Disclosure: I wrote one of the chapters on China.) More than twenty chapters deal with preparation, support, and restoration of workers in dangerous contexts. The volume concludes with four short chapters calling on us to pray for those who are suffering for the name of Christ, and for ourselves.
There are six very helpful appendices of resources for further study and action. Inserts on separate pages present stirring stories and quotations from a variety of sources, including martyrs. Biblical quotations throughout the text remind us of the centrality of suffering in the entire history of God’s people and of his plan of salvation. A few photographs and examples of art work, some of them in color, bring powerful images to augment the text.
A preface by Ajith Fernando urges people in the Western world to learn from the Majority world how to break out of our slavery to “productivity and profit,” convenience and comfort, and a fear of unbalanced commitment to Christian service, and to learn that “Persevering through inconvenience, struggling to be productive against so many odds, taking on suffering, sticking to unpleasant relations are what combine to produce great mission.” (xxii)
Part One: Building the Foundation
After lead editor William Taylor reminds us that “We are living in the days of the greatest growth of the church, when multitudes are coming into the Kingdom of Christ. At the same time, these are days of some of the greatest persecution of Christians in all of human history” (2), six chapters set the stage for the rest of the book, which fills out and illustrates a few basic themes. In them, we learn that persecution of Christians is worsening, especially in the former Soviet Union, India, and Muslim lands. As there are various types and stages of persecution, so reasons for persecution differ from place to place. In general, however, the growth of the church is seen as “a threat to the position of the majority religions and state ideologies.” (12) “The West is hated by the rest, and Christians are often equated with the West.” (14) “The international Character of Christianity and the international relations of Christians are regarded as a threat.” (14) Connections with America, especially, evoke both suspicion and hostility.
Many authors note that Western Christians have no “theology of suffering,” and some even believe in the “prosperity” message, which is rank heresy. We fail to see that suffering is at the core of the Christian message – think of the Cross. On the other hand, not all “Christian” suffering is necessary. Child evangelism, neglect of elders and social structures, confrontational evangelism, ignoring the necessity of contextualization, and lack of creativity in the use of various means of sharing the gospel have all provoked unnecessary hostile reactions. Ill-prepared and over-zealous short-term trippers frequently come in for criticism.
There have also been various responses to suffering, persecution, and martyrdom for Christ. Some persecuted believers choose to flee or escape; this often leads to a further spread of the gospel. Most endure patiently, reflecting the significant emphasis in the New Testament that “persecution for the followers of Jesus is both inevitable and normative.” (27) Martyrdom also often somehow contributes to the growth of the church, as Tertullian said long ago. Finally, some believers, both sufferers and those in other nations with more freedom, advocate on behalf of religious freedom on humanitarian and legal grounds. This last option is best done by experienced experts, and may lead to further persecution.
Careful definitions are necessary to prevent exaggerating the extent of persecution and martyrdom of Christians around the world. Martyrdom involves violent death for believing in Christ or propagating the faith. Persecution is defined as ”Any unjust action of varying levels of hostility perpetrated primarily on the basis of religion and directed at Christians, resulting in varying levels of harm as it is considered from the victim’s perspective.” (47) Importantly, this definition includes actions that “may or may not necessarily prevent or limit these Christians’ ability to practice their faith or appropriately propagate their faith.” (47)
People describe situations in various countries, including China (see below) differently based on these definitions. For example, does ridicule constitute persecution? Are Christian human rights lawyers being persecuted for their faith when they advocate for legal protection for believers of any religion? Should we distinguish legal restrictions and social or economic discrimination from actual persecution? These nuances matter when reporting upon the difficulties of believers in lands with limited religious freedom.
Part Two: Reflections from Scripture and Theology
Ten chapters comprise this section:”Deliver Us from Evil,” “A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship,” “The Prosperity Gospel” (2 chapters), “From Genesis to Revelation,” “The Teaching of Jesus on Suffering in Mission,” “Biblical Teaching Suffering and Perseverance in Paul and Peter,” “The Problem of Evil and Suffering,” “God’s Plan of Perseverance and Suffering in the Book of Revelation.” Each one hammers home the same theme: “Integral to authentic discipleship is the command to ‘take up your cross and follow me’ (Matt 16:24).” “At the very heart of our faith is sacrifice, supremely of the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Followers of Christ must also, in response to and imitation of that once-for-all perfect and complete sacrifice, voluntarily live in a mindset and practice of sacrifice, offering up our lives in the mundane and the extraordinary, in the love of God, and in service of our fellow human beings.” (60)
Sadly, ever since the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the church has, on and off, become “seduced by power, wealth, and ease.” (61) Despite the obvious fact that, from Genesis to Revelation, “persecution [is] a Central Topic of Scripture,” Christians have all too easily sought not only to avoid suffering, but have even perpetrated it on other believers. The so-called Prosperity Gospel may be the most outrageous example of false teaching in this regard, but even otherwise “orthodox” Christian preachers and teachers, today as in the past, have overlooked and ignored the plain fact that Jesus commanded each of his followers to follow in his footsteps to the Cross, and that “persecution and suffering belonged to the basics that Paul was teaching every church” (68). We in the West “fail to recognize that persecution is normative for the follower of Christ historically, missiologically, and (most importantly) scripturally.” (72)
These chapters contain powerful statements of this central and vital truth: “A cross-centered gospel requires cross-carrying messengers.” (73) “Christ’s cross was for propitiation. Our cross is for propagation.” (73)
Alas, the Prosperity Message, which began in American with Kenneth E. Hagin and has continued to be preached by his son, Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and many others who have been heard around the world on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, has greatly impacted Africa, Latin America, and Asian churches. Millions of people have been misled by this false teaching that health and prosperity are the birthrights of believers, and have thus been robbed of their forebears’ spiritual power in bearing sacrificial testimony to Christ. This worldly message dovetails nicely with traditional religions in Africa, China, and elsewhere, making it easy to propagate without bringing offense, but it produces false “conversions” and shallow “disciples.”
It can be “traceable to the televangelist culture in the United States,” and is tied to a “celebrity culture that has little space or room for the cross of Jesus Christ.” (88) It is, however, “nothing less than seduction into a false delusion.” (89) There are better, more biblical ways to address the very real issues of illness and poverty in these areas, and these are explored.
One chapter in this section deals with Matthew 10, which is “a benchmark for understanding opposition, persecution, and martyrdom in the context of world evangelization.” (91) We see that Jesus anticipated that his disciples would face degrees of persecution, from prevention of preaching to death; pointed to the sources of persecution; identified the underlying attitude behind persecution – hatred of Jesus himself; showed how we should respond to persecution; and offered words of comfort for those in the midst of persecution.
A profound reflection on the problem of evil and suffering includes the reminder that “there is such a thing as ‘the fellowship of his suffering’ for the disciples of Jesus.” (128) “In that sense, both joy and suffering are an integral part of the Christian experience.” Along the way, however, we have the love that comes from the community of fellow believers and the comfort of knowing that suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which confirms our hope that “suffering and evil will be ultimately defeated when the redemption we have received in Christ shall be fully consummated.” (128)
-G. Wright Doyle
(To be continued.)